Dax J: DJ Mag UK Cover Feature
When Dax J made worldwide headlines last year for dropping an Islamic call to prayer sample during his set in Tunisia, it looked for a minute like his career could be over. As a result of the ensuing international furore he received all manner of online death threats, and was sentenced to a year in prison by a Tunisian court. But instead of wallowing in gloom, he channelled the experience into writing music, producing some of his best ever work that has made its way onto his new album. Appropriately titled ‘Offending Public Morality’, it finds the Berghain regular in uncompromising mood. DJ Mag joins him in Berlin to get the full scoop...
'Public indecency and offending public morality'. Before April last year, those words probably meant about as much to Dax J as his name did to anyone outside of techno. The poster boy for the return of a fast, industrial sound - a counter to the stagnating mainstream - he maintained underground appeal while earning ever-bigger bookings. But a single incident looked set to change that.
After a video emerged of Dax playing a track which sampled the adhan - the Islamic call to prayer - at a club in majority-Muslim Tunisia, his name exploded out of the dance music world into the mainstream media, and for all the wrong reasons. Although already back home in Berlin, Dax was sentenced to a year in prison — the charges? Public indecency and offending public morality. It was a mistake that looked set to cost him his career, or worse — he received death threats and online abuse, and even had to cancel gigs in his native UK because the police were worried about retaliation. Thankfully, without incident, the news moved on and Dax’s life returned somewhat to normality, yet it still hung over him in the background, like the sword of Damocles. As anyone who’s ever faced adversity knows, you have to wear your scars with pride and learn from the mistakes that caused them, so Dax set about dealing with it the only way he knew how: making music. The result is his sophomore album, ‘Offending Public Morality’; a means of catharsis for himself, and a comment on wider societal issues and taboos that he believes need challenging.
“Otherwise it would always have been there,” he says, “this weird thing that’s floating around; whereas now I’ve captured it, tried to do something positive with it, and then it’s done.”
Rewind a decade, though, and all this would have seemed ludicrous to a young Dax Heddon. A junglist who’d made his name on former London pirate radio station, Origin FM, as DJ Dangerous — “I always used to do stupid shit like jump off of buildings when I was young, and my mates always used to call me ‘Dangerous’” — he’d grown tired of the fights and muggings in the local d&b scene and was looking for something new. With the end of his three-year music technology degree in sight, he decided a season in Ibiza was the answer, ploughing through the rest of his work in order to nish early and head out mid-April to get himself a job DJing before the season started.
“I went out there with [beach house label] Hed Kandi CDs cos I didn’t know anything,” he recalls as we chat in his apartment, still thawing slightly from the brisk Berlin winds, bellies full of his favourite local pizza. “I’d heard of Hed Kandi, I knew that was a thing, so I went to HMV and bought like four or five compilations and I was like, ‘I’m gonna get a DJ job with this’... and I did, I got a job!”
But there’s only so long anyone can hack being around tunes they hate, and after a few weeks “playing crap music” in San Antonio, Dax was ready to pack it in and head home — before the season had even started. Luckily, a friend convinced him to stick with it and finally, like so many ravers in the long illustrious history of Ibiza, his epiphany came in Space.
“I went to Space Opening; it was the first one I went to," he remembers. “Carl Cox came on and he was banging it! And I was like, ‘Fuuuuck, yeah!’ I remember at that moment I had the same feeling that I had when I went to my very first drum & bass rave when I was like 16... You’re like ‘Woah!’ and it’s kind of life-changing...I knew that was a turning point, it was a special moment.”
The next day he headed to the beach to tell his friend. “The only thing I knew of techno was the 2 Unlimited song, ‘No Limit’, cos it goes ‘techno techno techno techno’,” he says, mimicking the karate-like dance moves of the outfit’s rapper, Ray Slijngaard. “So I used to think techno was uncool and all my mates used to think techno was uncool, so I had to say to that guy, I needed reassurance. But he was like, ‘Yeah, techno’s wicked’, and I was like ‘OK... I’m into techno’.”
(And Dax’s relationship with Carl Cox didn’t end there: four years later he was back on the White Isle handing out flyers for the techno legend’s Music Is Revolution party, even getting to play Space’s Premier Etage with his promo team during the final party of the season; the year after that saw Coxy drop one of Dax’s tunes at Space Closing; and in 2017, Dax was invited to play one of only two Pure Carl Cox events the big man held at Privilege.)
DARK, DRIVING TECHNO
By the end of Dax’s first season, he’d replaced his Hed Kandi comps with a record box full of “dark, driving techno”. He was addicted; constantly hunting through DJ sets, researching online, discovering new music — or, in many cases, old music, as the current scene was growing increasingly minimal and harder tracks that grabbed his attention mainly came from the ‘90s and early 2000s.
“I was always drawn to that faster thing, but no one was really pushing it, it wasn’t really accepted,” he explains. “It definitely wasn’t accepted in London at the time cos London was all deep house then, and techno wasn’t big at all — the word techno wasn’t big. Dax wasn’t going to let a little thing like unpopularity stop him though, and together with some friends started putting on parties back home. “FUSE was blowing up on Brick Lane, and they were doing this Sunday thing... We were like ‘Yeah, we’re gonna do a Sunday after-party and it’s just gonna be banging techno and we’re gonna make it massive’. We just assumed cos FUSE got so big that we would as well, cos no one was doing techno,” he continues. “Then we put on the parties and they just flopped.”
His Down In Decadence events — so called because they were held at now-defunct Shoreditch venue The Last Days Of Decadence — may have died a death, but around the turn of the decade the spark for London’s underground techno resurgence had caught, and Dax joined up with Chris Stanford and Gareth Wild, DJing and releasing for the EarToGround party/label. Over the next few years the demand grew, and when beloved London Bridge club Cable was shut in 2013, Sunday after-party Jaded — already a verified clubbing institution in the capital — moved to its current home of Corsica Studios and offered the EarToGround crew a monthly residency. As Dax’s popularity has soared over the past few years he’s remained loyal to Jaded, eventually making it the only event he plays in London (until this month, in fact, his performance at Jaded on New Year’s Day 2017 remains his last in the city).
Dax’s days in London had been numbered ever since 2010, when another clubbing experience twisted his perspective: Berghain. “We got in about 10am Sunday morning and I remember walking up the stairs to the main room, and Boris was playing, and he was playing so hard... I didn’t know that clubs played this kind of music. I couldn’t believe it. And everyone was proper raving, going for it. It was a proper eye-opener,” he recalls, making it his mission to play the club when he visited again two years later.
“It wasn’t until a couple of years later that I moved to Berlin, but that was one of the main reasons... cos Berghain was so amazing.” He now lives about 10 minutes away and plays there on a regular basis. Talk about life goals...
Berlin’s history as a haven for artists looking to escape the financial pressures of cities such as London is long and well-documented, and like so many, Dax has flourished there. While cheap rent was the initial draw (and to some extent still is), over the years a much more unique and important benefit has emerged: the community. Dax’s studio is now housed in the same building as that of Ben Klock, Ansome and, previously, Rødhåd. The building is the former headquarters of the dreaded East German secret police, the Stasi — the beautiful irony of what goes on there now must be almost too much for some citizens.
“I mean it was really exciting, and inspiring as well, just to be surrounded by so many people who really appreciated and were really into what you were doing,” he says, even continuing the cycle, recently helping to find Blawan a flat there. In fact, Dax’s only complaint is the supermarkets — “I never thought I’d be dreaming of Tesco’s!” And, rather than diluting the talent pool, Dax believes the high concentration pushes artists to produce better work. “People are always gonna be coming here, but that’s what makes the level of quality so high here,” he explains. “Because there’s so many people, and if you’re not cutting it then people are gonna know. If you’re playing average music, if you’re making average music, then there’s so many other people doing good stuff that you’re not gonna get heard.” In turn this means that people take more risks, causing niche, experimental music to thrive: “You’ve got a strong noise scene, strong drone scene, strong ambient scene. It becomes this melting point of so many interrelated genres.”
Perhaps this is why Dax has thrived there; wearing his old junglist in influences on his sleeve, particularly on releases such as his acclaimed 2015 debut album ‘Shades Of Black’, has made him stand out from the crowd. The clattering of breaks had been largely absent from techno for a long time, but it’s been steadily on the increase over the past few years. Dax has even gone as far as to drop a few choice drum & bass bangers such as Konflict’s ‘Messiah’ and Bad Company’s ‘The Nine’ in his sets recently, and admits he still dreams of a release on Goldie’s revered Metalheadz label. (He’s even planning to make a couple of d&b tunes this year, although, no, he won’t be reviving his Dangerous alias!)
And Dax is far from the only one pushing for a more diverse techno scene. He’s excited by the range on offer now, from EBM to hardcore to the traditional stripped- back Berlin sound. “It’s not like one sound is dying and the other one is coming up,” he says. “I think they’re kind of branching off and the scene is just growing like a tree. It seems to be spreading its branches and getting bigger in all areas, which is great.”
Dax sees a move away from “standard, generic productions” in particular: “Like these young kids, they’re not afraid to put in some really distorted fast acid, maybe a 140 fast acid track. Whereas a few years ago people wouldn’t even really look at that, now it’s accepted. I get so many promos from young producers that I’ve never heard of and I check them out and they’re some 20-year-old kid from Italy or something, and I’m like, ‘This is a banger!’”
Dax’s enthusiasm for this wave of new talent and sonic experimentation is most obvious on his label, Monnom Black, where he’s fostered some of the scene’s most promising young talents, such as Stranger, Remco Beekwilder and I Hate Models, along with established acts such as EBM veteran Thomas P. Heckmann, whose new album ‘Body Music’ landed in March.
“Really the main thing for me is, am I gonna play the music?” Dax explains, when probed on his A&Ring. “Most of the releases are club tracks, it’s not meant for home listening. The records are meant to be played in clubs or for DJs to play them in their sets. And then there’s other factors, like are they good DJs? It’s always nice if they are. And it’s nice to grow an artist, and also help them. Like Stranger, he did the release and then
I got him onto Elite Management, my agency, and the same with Remco, who did ‘LSD’, now he’s on Elite. “And with the Heckmann thing, I’ve been playing Heckmann tracks for years, cos he’s got so much good stuff. Then I thought, ‘I have to get him on the label’. It makes sense. So I contacted him and we organised it, and I’m so pleased to get him on cos he’s like a hero of mine.”
"If you’re playing average music, if you’re making average music, then there’s so many other people doing good stuff that you’re not gonna get heard.”
The success of Dax’s first album ‘Shades Of Black’ helped put the spotlight on both him and Monnom Black, and the label now plays home to his second full-length, ‘Offending Public Morality’. Fittingly it’s his most experimental work to date, and is yet again sure to cause a stir — for more reasons than one.
Combining gritty ambient, EBM, full-throttle jungle and, of course, hammering, obsidian techno, without even taking into account its deeper themes, the album could be said to offend genre morality; burning norms at the stake. “I’m known for straight-up dancefloor techno, and I wanted to make an album that would appeal both to a listening audience and a DJ audience,” he explains. In fact, the “straight-up dancefloor techno” doesn’t even really kick off until halfway through the LP. And even then, tracks are ripped apart by grotesque twists in arrangement — some, such as ‘Unrepentacostal’, given a strange radio-tuning effect that keeps intensity and anticipation turned up to 11.
“A lot of techno albums, they kind of have these slow tracks, this album stuff, it’s kind of slow and deep, and I wanted to go the other way. I wanted to go faster, and a bit more intense and a bit more crazy and a bit more technical,” he continues. “Technically it was just a lot of editing and a lot of resampling, and going in and out of machines and plugins and recording — there was a lot of technical work on there. I went a lot deeper in production on this whole album than anything I’ve ever done.”
But while the sonics are masterfully executed, and worthy of the highest praise, it’s the source and the concept behind ‘Offending Public Morality’ that will, we imagine, always remain the main talking point. When Dax arrived back from Tunisia last April, he didn’t know he was on the brink of global notoriety. He didn’t flee the country as some media outlets reported, but only discovered the upset he’d caused several days later, once the video of him playing the call to prayer sample had been picked up by the country’s national media.
As the story snowballed everything just got crazier and more confusing, and it wasn’t until after he was sentenced by a Tunisian court that he was able to make contact and find out the exact legal details of the situation — the sentence will be void if he doesn’t return in the next five years, and, a year on (this month), he can ask the President of Tunisia for a pardon. “I’m gonna apply for the pardon, cos it’s not nice to have a prison sentence hanging over your head,” he says with a nervous chuckle.
"No matter what you do, someone’s gonna say it’s shit. No matter how good it is, someone’s gonna be annoyed at something you’ve said. Everyone’s got an opinion, and it’s a strange time in the world”
What nobody could have guessed was that Dax was also on the brink of his second album. Having already started casually working on a few tracks, the Tunisia debacle was fuel for the fire: “I had all this new emotion, new experiences, and I went to the studio. The best time to write music is when you’re the most emotional — it doesn’t matter how you’re feeling, maybe you’re sad, you’re angry, whatever, but when you’ve got that emotion, you can harness that in the studio, that’s when the best music comes out,” he enthuses. “I just started writing music and all this stuff was coming out... some of the best stuff I wrote, and the most personal stuff, came out after and during that period. So I kind of see it as an audio diary, documentation of the last year of my life. I just wanted to document it and then put a lid on it. This is it, this is what happened, it’s done.”
Even the darkest aspects of the experience — the threats of violence and death — were sublimated into this positive endeavour. “The last track on my album is called ‘Imminent Death’; there were a few days where I’d just kind of given in, I was like, ‘Oh well, whatever if I get killed. If I die, I die’. And I went to the studio and used that emotion. I thought, ‘I’ve gotta try and get something out of this, I’ve gotta try and channel this energy somehow, somewhere’. So I wrote that tune, and the same week I wrote the ‘Offending Public Morality’ track.”
Now, Dax’s actions in Tunisia were perhaps naïve, particularly given the current religious and political tensions between the Middle East and the West. But spending a day with Dax, it’s easy to see he has boyish charm and rebellious energy that probably got him into the odd scrap or spot of trouble when he was younger, but there’s an easy-going and friendly nature to him that puts the idea of maliciousness straight out the window.
The offending track had actually been a regular part of his set for several months, and was actually due to be released. It was only once it reached an audience outside of techno via the Tunisian and later the Western media that the storm began, which has led him to believe that larger powers were at play.
“I heard that the Tunisian media wanted to shut down the nightlife, and they needed an excuse to do this; so they used what I did,” he says, soberly. “They wanted to use that to make the nightlife and clubbing industry look bad, so they’re using that to their gain.”
Yet Dax feels sections of the Western media were no better, twisting his experience to push an Islamophobic message. “On this side, I had all the European media, and they were kind of on my side, but then there was this whole racism towards Muslims, this undertone.” One outlet even ran the story of his sentencing with a picture of a random man who looked vaguely like Dax and had clearly been physically assaulted. “They put this picture on it to make it look as if I was already in prison and I’d just been beaten up, and then there were all these comments like, ‘Oh my god, look what’s happened to this geezer, it’s disgusting they let that happen’, causing all this animosity — and at the time of reading it I’m just sitting at home in my front room. They’ve used it to create more hype so they can get more clicks on their website. I guess this is the way the media’s always worked, but for me it was the first time realising it cos it was the first time I was experiencing it for myself.”
As Dax sees it, the Western media was “hyping it up to create more Islamophobia, to create more reaction from the public”, and he was stuck in the middle. “I was seeing that media take one angle and that media take the other angle, and they’re both using it for their own gain,” he says. For him it’s all a simple case of brainwashing and scare tactics from a biased media. Several years ago, Dax even took the decision to avoid newspapers and news channels after noticing the high volume of negative stories. “It’s all just super negative and I feel that it’s just a way of control, to keep people in fear,” he says. “If you’re just the general public it’s hard to dissect all of that and know what’s real and what isn’t. So in the end it’s just one big mess and you don’t know what to believe.”
That’s not to say that Dax believes the upset to be all a conspiracy, however, and he’s still apologetic for causing it. “This sample in particular has been used hundreds of times in tunes, it’s just the fact that it was played in that country,” he admits. “So yeah, they didn’t like it and I understand that, I get that now.”
But art has always been a tricky subject, reflecting reality, distorting it to make a bigger point. “For art, anything should go, but at the same time, I guess in today’s current climate you have to be a bit more wary of it,” he adds. “This album, it’s not meant to be like an attack back. It’s a response, as in a documentation of what’s happened in the last year and what I’ve been through, and current affairs in this day and age.”
He continues: “I went through a lot of experiences first-hand and I realised that there’s issues and subjects out there that are not really supposed to be spoken about. Everyone gets offended these days. No matter what you do, someone’s gonna say it’s shit. No matter how good it is, someone’s gonna be annoyed at something you’ve said. Everyone’s got an opinion, and it’s a strange time in the world.”
His experience of Islamophobia in the Western media also informed another track, ‘1001 Amen Nights’, which deals, very directly, with racism. There, Dax samples a scene from the 1980 British film, Babylon, in which an angry woman complaining about noise launches a racist verbal attack against a group of black people. Including a racial slur is a move that, given his position of white privilege, could be seen as highly offensive. But Dax makes a counterpoint. “It’s going against her, it’s fighting back against the system. And it’s showing that’s going on. But I wouldn’t like to think that someone would think that I was coming at that from a racist stance. I can’t see how you would perceive that. But what I would like people to see is probably that there are still racial issues going on throughout the world, and this was just one way of documenting it.”
By setting this particular sample into a jungle track, Dax aimed to give it “a playful sense on a serious issue”, recontextualising the abuse. “There’s obviously the whole racism issue in that track, but then the guy at the end is fighting back,” says Dax. “I wanted it to represent a wider issue, a global issue, and if people are offended then maybe that’s a good thing, maybe people will start thinking more about it.”
Elsewhere, the album deals with depression through the lyrics of Zanias (the LP’s sole collaborator), on ‘Waves Of Isolation’, prostitution — the artwork Dax picked, coincidentally, being a picture of Boston’s old red light district — and drug use on ‘Looking For Tina’, which isn’t just London slang for crystal meth, but includes an acapella by Kool Keith on the subject. “I used it as a platform to explore those areas and present the hard truth to some people,” he says.
We wonder if drugs are another problem Dax himself has had to face, but he assures us he’s no addict. However, he has known the damage drugs can cause — the first funeral Dax attended was that of a close friend who died from a drug-related incident, and in the past he’s had relationships break down over addiction. “Drugs have been there the whole time, and I’ve experienced the good times but also the dark times,” he tells us. “That’s what that track represents, the dark effects of drugs, and again the unspoken truths that go on in real life that are not spoken about by the media cos they’ve got nothing to gain from it.”
In fact, Dax’s increased touring in recent years means he’s tried to be a lot more healthy-living (and after spotting workout stations in his studio and flat, we’re inclined to believe him). “I’ve realised that I can’t be getting on it and drinking and drugging because you just can’t tour, you can’t do your gigs, you’re not in the right state of mind,” he explains. The track aims to simply point out the realities of life. “I mean, obviously being in dance music you’re surrounded by drugs. And I’m not an angel, I’m not a saint, I’ve taken drugs,” he says. “And it’s not something that should really be hidden away but it is hidden, it’s still this taboo thing.”
But if Dax is not a saint, does he consider himself a sinner? “Personally I’m not that religious, but I guess I’ve definitely done a lot of things that people would class as sin,” he laughs. “And why is it a sin? Why should taking drugs be a sin? Who says it should be a sin? Why is prostitution a sin? Maybe that woman needs money to put her daughter through college or something. It’s just the way that the public perceive things and the way they’re brainwashed by the media to perceive things.”
Perception is a difficult thing — just as beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so is ugliness. Dax J has learnt more about that than most in the last year, and channelled his experiences into a bold work of art. Will it offend? Almost definitely. But, as Dax says, is that a bad thing? Progress cannot happen without discussion. What began as a catastrophe could inspire change. “I think the kids now, they’re gonna change everything,” he says. “They understand things a lot better and things are gonna keep moving forward with each generation.”
And with the launch of his album, application for a pardon and grand return to London for an all night long set at Village Underground this month, Dax J is firmly forward-facing too.